First, Barbie had Ken. Now, Barbie has a MasterCard.
One of the most heavily advertised toys this holiday season is Cool Shopping Barbie, a Mattel Inc. product in which the famous doll runs a clothing boutique that accepts MasterCard. Officials at MasterCard International say the toy is a way for parents to talk to their children about debt and budgeting.
Not to be outdone, Visa U.S.A. and Citicorp have lent their names to the Pretend & Play Cash Register. The toy, made by Learning Resources of Vernon Hills, Ill., comes with a Citibank Visa card and a swipe slot.
"We thought it would look realistic and be kind of fun," said Barbara Plain, product manager at Learning Resources.
The card brand wars seem to have hit the preschool set for the first time this year. Credit card executives say the products are a good way to promote their brand to future customers and their elders, but some parents are not pleased.
On an Internet site hosted by an organization called Financial Independence Consultants, several parents have posted complaints about Cool Shopping Barbie, saying the toy condones debt. Barbie's talking cash register says "credit approved" when her MasterCard is swiped.
"Let's keep our children involved in a different mind-set-one of financial independence," writes Julie Kouns, who identifies herself on the Web site as a mother.
And on a Web site maintained by a toy seller, the Pretend & Play Cash Register takes its knocks. A parent reviewer named H. Williams from Valencia, Calif., calls it "an excellent educational toy" but adds: "My only objection to this is the pretend Citibank credit card, which seems to be a subliminal message to kids to get a real one from Citibank when they grow up. I'd prefer a make-believe bank name on the card."
The toy companies use a different argument. "The more realism, the more often children will go back and play with it," said Sara Rosales, a spokeswoman for Mattel of El Segundo, Calif. Dentist Barbie comes with a tube of Crest and her supermarket set includes several brand-name products.
In the Cool Shopping scenario, Barbie is "an entrepreneur who's running her own business, and she's learning to deal with finances, whether it's credit cards or cash payments," Ms. Rosales said.
R. Douglas Rozman, a MasterCard spokesman, said a message on the toy box describes the importance of budgeting. "We look at this as a platform for parents to work with their children early on, to instill responsible shopping and personal finance habits," he said.
The Pretend & Play Cash Register-which comes with a solar-powered calculator and life-sized play money-is meant to teach arithmetic skills, said Ms. Plain. The toy has won several awards from parenting magazines.
Ms. Plain said she is a Citibank customer, so that was the first bank she approached about lending its name to the toy. Citibank gave enthusiastic approval, she said, and secured Visa's permission, too.
The companies "didn't pay us to use their names, we didn't pay them," Ms. Plain said. "They wouldn't allow us to put their names on it if they weren't happy with the product."
An American Express Co. spokesman said the company has no toy tie-ins.